In the course of this blog, I tend to make the assumption that there is essentially no cultural criticism in Japan — i.e., no rated reviews or subjective rankings, just pure information on films, records, television shows, and other products — based on the fact that almost all of the major Japanese music magazines tend to avoid negative comments.
After looking through an issue of Shunkan Bunshun today, I realized that there is a pretty standard film criticism culture in Japan, including the rating of new releases with stars. This information is a much better backdrop to the Star Wars review controversy. Reviewers were upset that the film’s distributor was crossing the line of normally-allowed press freedom by directly editing the articles’ content.
Critical culture is certainly less prevalent in Japan than other places, and I’ve always seen two opposing explanations: a cultural one (the favorite Momus line that Japanese people “don’t like to criticize”) or a market-based one (the dependency of magazines on advertisers and information-suppliers makes criticism difficult). The lack of criticism in the music market and presence of it in the film market seems to support the latter explanation, because these two markets have totally different organizations.
Most music in Japan is created by artists, who work on contract for artist management companies (jimusho), which then license the masters to record labels. The management companies have greater sway with the media (especially television) than the record companies, and media conglomerates are dependent upon these jimusho to provide talent for content. From the beginnings of the music industry, the management companies have made it clear that there is a zero-tolerance policy about scandals, gossip, and bad reviews related to their artists appearing in the publications/productions of media partners, and in this environment, independent criticism of domestic music has been next to impossible, especially when the music magazine market was taken over by large media conglomerates in the 1980s.
The market for foreign films, on the other hand, is much simpler — involving mostly distribution and promotion companies. While there are some distribution companies with great market power, critical discussion of foreign films is much less political than music criticism in that (1) the films are foreign, and therefore, attacking the film is not an attack on Japanese production companies (2) panning one film does not necessarily mean panning all the distributor’s films and future efforts. In the case of Star Wars Episode III, the distributor did have enough market power to enforce a policy of only positive reviews and decided to break its traditional pact with the media to perfectly create a well-managed flow of product information to the consumers. Whether there will be more pressure in the future on film reviewers remains to be seen, but I do think it’s ultimately a question of who holds the greatest market power — the media or the distributors?
Although I am not an expert on the field, Japanese car magazines supposedly hold great sway over consumer tastes and are highly critical of domestic cars. In these market conditions, the automobile industry does not have the ability to pressure the magazines into solely positive reviews.
From these three examples, I find it hard to believe that an aversion to media criticism is a strictly cultural issue. If there was a natural inclination against negativity, why would music, movie, and car magazines all have different levels of critical reviews? Or do music magazine writers just have no interest in describing a record beyond its press release while their brethren in the film world speak their minds?